Its not ethnic discrimination in the workplace to insist on English proficiency

by on January 5, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Ethnic discrimination at work and English language proficiency

Can you refuse a job or promotion to someone who doesn’t speak English well enough to do the job properly? It’s an important question these days, with so many non-native English speakers in the workforce.

Fortunately, the answer is a qualified “Yes,” as illustrated by a recent ethnic discrimination at work case in Wisconsin.

A university professor from China was refused a tenured position and sued for racial and national origin discrimination in the workplace. But the court threw her case out. An administrator said students could not understand her, and the court said there was no reason to think this judgment was a pretext for bias.

Accents matter and its not ethnic discrimination at work

You can insist not only on a certain level of language proficiency, but also on relatively unaccented English if the job demands it. If an immigrant from, say, the Congo, wants a hotel desk job but has such heavily accented English that guests can’t grasp what she’s saying, you can refuse her the position.

So much but not more

Key concept: You can require as much fluency as is necessary for the position, but not more.

For example, a data entry person who doesn’t meet the public probably can get by without a high level of spoken English, as long as he or she can communicate with coworkers and read instructions. You’d be wrong to refuse the person this job just because of his or her heavy accent and would also be liable for an discrimination lawsuit.

Cite: Yan v. University of Wisconsin, No. 05-C-16-C, W.D. Wis., 9/12/05.

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